Matt & zoe, p.15
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       Matt & Zoe, p.15

           Charles Sheehan-Miles
 
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  “Jasmine,” he says. “I owe you an apology.”

  What?

  Jasmine looks startled out of her cynicism for the first time all afternoon. “What? Why?”

  “Well, you see, I wanted to take Zoe out on a date. I didn’t ask you, and maybe I should have.”

  “Do y-y-you … like her?”

  He smiles. Then he nods. “I like you too, Jasmine, but in a different way. You can count on me, I’ll be your teacher and friend, okay?”

  Jasmine suddenly hugs him. He’s crouching and sways a little, but doesn’t lose his balance. I can hear her say, “You can go out with Zoe. I don’t mind.”

  ***

  “Sometimes I don’t understand you.” Matt’s tone is frank as he says the words, almost an hour after he picked me up. Concerned, not angry.

  “What do you mean?” I ask. I try to keep my poker face on, but I’ve never been very good at that.

  He grins a little as he stabs another bite of calamari with his fork. “I mean, you’re very tightly wound. You don’t talk at all about the last few years of your life. All I know is you’ve been in the Army … and in Tokyo. That’s it.”

  I look away. I feel like I’m losing my appetite, and my stomach twists with an unreasonable level of anxiety.

  Talk.

  I don’t want to.

  Talk.

  I let out my breath with a long, slow exhalation. I’m fidgeting, my hands playing with the silverware. Me. No. I stop fidgeting and look at Matt, then I say the first words that come out of my mouth. “It’s hard for me to trust.”

  He nods. “Yeah. Me too.”

  I shake my head. “No… you don’t understand. I don’t … I mean… “ Shit. I try to compose myself.

  He takes my hand. “No need to get so flustered.”

  His tone is unreasonably reasonable. It makes me want to punch him. Or kiss him. Instead of doing those things, I ask, “Have you ever seen anyone die?”

  He blinks, and for a second I think I see pain flash in his eyes. He tries to hide it, but the pressure of his hand on mine lessens too. I’ve disturbed him somehow. He leans back.

  Maybe Matt has his own secrets hidden away.

  “Tell me,” I say.

  His eyes don’t quite meet mine when he says, “My father. He died in an accident. A few years back. I was … there. Why do you ask?”

  His father. How have I known this guy for weeks and not known that his father was died in an accident? Why haven’t I asked him about his parents? Or did his evasiveness about growing up frustrate me enough on some level that I just stopped asking? Suddenly I’m second guessing myself—and wanting to trust even less.

  And his question. Why do you ask? I pull back just a little. It’s enough that he releases my hand. I reach for my Cosmo in an effort to hide my discomfort. I haven’t had much to drink—just a few sips. This time I take a long one, the sweet liquor flooding my taste buds.

  He waits for an answer. Finally I say, “I don’t talk about the last few years much because in some ways they were just… I can’t explain it to anyone who wasn’t there.”

  “Wasn’t where?”

  “Iraq,” I say. “I thought I could. I talked about it some with Chase.”

  He gives me a quizzical look.

  “Chase… my ex-boyfriend. We dated for several months in Japan. Then he ditched me.”

  Matt winces. “Was he there? In Iraq?”

  “No… and honestly, after a while, it seemed like he didn’t want to hear about it anymore.”

  “Why, was it too… I don’t get it. I’d listen to you always.”

  It’s like a punch in the gut. We haven’t made those kinds of declarations, and I’m not ready to. “Don’t be an idiot, Matt. There’s nothing there to talk about.”

  He raises a hand as if he were surrendering.

  “It’s okay,” he says. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

  Damn it. I look away, suddenly feeling tears in my eyes. The thing is, I do trust him. Jasmine does too. I know it’s our first date, but I feel a crazy sort of happiness with him. “You didn’t,” I whisper. “I make myself uncomfortable.”

  Huh. My Cosmo is all gone. I didn’t notice drinking it. He notices though, and waves down our waitress.

  “Another cocktail?” she asks.

  “Yes, please.”

  “Me too,” Matt says. He’s drinking beer, some local brew I haven’t tried. Our dinner should be here soon, and I hope it’s sooner than soon, because there’s an uncomfortable silence after what I just said.

  I sigh. “I enlisted in the Army right out of high school.”

  “Along with Nicole?” he asks.

  “Yeah.”

  “Why?”

  I stare at him with a blank face. Why? That was the million-dollar question. My mother asked me that, my father, my teachers. I remember Mom crying as she nearly begged me to go to college instead. I had a free ride at Mount Holyoke. I was accepted to Brown and Boston College and Carnegie Mellon. Why would I give all that up and join the Army instead? I finally say, “I didn’t feel like I was ready for college. And … you know, my parents were academics. Or my Mom was before she started with the horses. That was her thing. He was a professor. They both wanted me to be them. But I didn’t know what I wanted. It seemed like a chance to find out.”

  “Did you?”

  “Did I what?”

  He smiles. “Did you figure out what you wanted?”

  I swallow. Then I slowly shake my head. “No. I still don’t know any better than I did five years ago.”

  “What was the Army like?”

  Our waitress arrives with another Cosmo.

  Just in time, too.

  I pause to take a drink, both because it buys me some time and because I’m getting a warm feeling throughout my upper body. I don’t want to talk about this. I don’t want to talk about it at all. I find myself blurting out words I hadn’t intended to say. “Some of it was great. I loved living in Japan. But I also spent a year in Iraq. That was … awful.”

  “You said you were Military Police?”

  I nod. “Yeah. But most of my tour in Iraq I was TDY.”

  He looks confused. His expression reminds me in an unfortunate way of Chase, who used to get annoyed whenever I used too much military terminology. Matt doesn’t look annoyed, just confused. “TDY is temporary duty. I was assigned to 23rd Infantry Regiment. See, it’s all men in the Infantry, but we were assigned to an area where we regularly had to kick in doors looking for insurgents and contraband. They needed women along on the patrols to search the female Iraqis.”

  “That must have been scary,” he says.

  I shake my head, which is pretty much the opposite of how I feel. “Sure. Scary sometimes. Dangerous. And … dehumanizing. In Tokyo, my job mostly involved controlling access to the barracks and periodically retrieving drunken soldiers from the local bars. In Iraq… you know, you can’t imagine it. Kick in the doors of a house, you’ve got the adult men being tied up and searched, the women screaming, the children crying. And it goes on for a long time, and you’re just hoping the whole time that you don’t get attacked from the outside while you’re in there. One time that happened… we’re inside, shaking down this family, and insurgents opened fire on the place. Two of the kids were killed.”

  I close my eyes. His hand touches mine, a touch that is almost excruciating in its closeness. I don’t want to feel vulnerable. I open my eyes and look in his.

  “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” he says, looking me in the eyes. “If you need to, I’m here, and I’ll listen.”

  I feel myself slurring my words as I say, “What makes you think I want to talk about it.” I don’t pull my hand back though, and that’s strange.

  He smirks, one side of his mouth rising higher than the other. “I don’t know that you want to. But it’s clear you need to. You’re bottled up tighter than a drum.”

  “What about you?
I ask. “How is it I’m just finding out tonight that your father passed away?”

  A flash of pain crosses his eyes, and I feel ashamed. I lost my own parents just a few weeks ago. Why poke at someone else’s wounds?

  He says, “I just don’t like to talk about it.”

  “Fair enough,” I say. “I don’t much like talking about this stuff either. But there’s one thing you need to know.”

  He raises both eyebrows in question.

  “I don’t put up with any bullshit. Ever. My last boyfriend cheated on me. You understand what I’m saying?”

  “I understand he must have been a complete idiot.”

  I smile. “I think I like you, Matt.”

  He chuckles. “So what’s next for you, anyway?”

  I’m starting to hate that question. Really I am. I don’t feel like I’m even beginning to be ready to formulate an answer beyond the next week or two. I intentionally restrict my answer to the immediate.

  “Well, I’ve got Jasmine’s guardianship hearing on Monday. Which I’m told is just a formality.”

  “Guardianship hearing?” he asks, cocking his head.

  I nod. “When my parents were—when the accident happened—Jasmine was at summer day camp. No one came to pick her up. They called my parents and couldn’t get through, of course. It took about 48 hours before word finally got to me in Japan, and almost 48 more before I was home. Jasmine was in an emergency shelter in the meantime. My parents’ wills didn’t make any provision for custody, so the court has to approve me becoming her legal guardian.”

  He shook his head. “I had no idea. They couldn’t … they wouldn’t take her from you, would they?”

  “My attorney says there’s no reason that should happen. And the guardian ad litem… that’s a court appointee who came out to ask me questions… she says she’ll recommend Jasmine stay with me.”

  I say all these words and mean them. I don’t feel as confident as I sound. Beth Martin, the attorney Nicole recommended I get in touch with, has assured me there’s absolutely no reason for me to lose guardianship of Jasmine. All the same, every time I think about it, I get an unfamiliar tight feeling in my stomach. I never expected to be raising my sister, but now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

  Love her smile (Matt)

  “Come with me,” Zoe demands as she stands to walk into the courtroom. Jasmine, looking anxious, stands next to her.

  “Of course,” I say.

  She grabs my hand, and the three of us walk into the court, accompanied by Beth, her attorney. Beth is forty-five or so, with a shock of short cropped, gray and white hair. She wears a pale gray suit, and the whole effect would be drab except that her eyes are the deepest blue I think I’ve ever seen. She probably weighs ninety pounds—at least she does when carrying her suitcase. Tiny, aggressive—she gives the impression of a ferret.

  Zoe walks with her back perfectly straight, and her left hand is bunched into a fist. Her cheeks have a spot of color on them, and when we enter the room her eyes fix on the judge. I’ve never seen her this nervous.

  Once the room is clear, the judge, a stern looking man with graying hair, says in a very casual tone, “Okay, let’s get a look here. This is in the case of the petition for guardianship of one Jasmine Welch by her sister, Zoe Welch. Ms. Welch, are you represented by counsel?”

  Beth Martin stands. “Beth Martin, your honor. I’m representing Miss Welch.”

  “Is the guardian ad litem present?”

  A woman I haven’t met before stands. She’s tall, remarkably tall, and lanky, with dark brown skin. “Melanie Lamott, your honor. Department of Children and Family Services.”

  “Everyone have a seat please,” the judge says. I star to take a seat at the back of the room, but Zoe grabs my hand and pushes me into the seat next to her.

  The judge looks at Jasmine. “Jasmine… you’ve had a rough time. Do you understand why you are here?”

  Jasmine nods.

  “Can you explain it to me?” the judge asks patiently.

  “You-you-you…” Her face screws up in frustration. Then a flood of words bursts past the block. “You’re decided whether I can stay with my sister.”

  The judge nods. “That’s right. Can you tell me how you feel about living with your sister?”

  Jasmine squeezes Zoe’s hand tighter. The squeezes her eyes shut and says, “Puh… puh… please let me stay? Please?”

  The judge smiles at her, a kind expression on his face.

  “Miss Lamott, I have the written report you’ve submitted. Do you have any comments to add to it?”

  The woman shakes her head. “Only that I’ve met with Miss Welch, and I believe she’ll be a fine guardian for her sister. It would be an injustice to separate the two of them.”

  Beside me, Zoe’s left hand flies to her mouth and her eyes water, even as her right hand squeezes mine. I find myself letting out a breath. I hadn’t realized I’d been holding it, just like Zoe. There was never any doubt. All the same… you never know with bureaucracy, right?

  The judge responds to the guardian, saying, “Then you recommend an immediate custody order?”

  “Yes, your honor.”

  The judge looks at Zoe. “You’re young to suddenly become de-facto mother to an eight year old, but your service record is exemplary. I think you’ll make a fine guardian, Miss Welch. I’m ordering that your sister continues to be in your care, and your application for guardianship is granted. Good luck.”

  I both pull Zoe and Jasmine to me in a tight hug. Zoe goes silent for a moment, then she bursts into tears.

  “I don’t know why I’m crying,” she laughs.

  Beth smiles and says, “Congratulations, Zoe.”

  Zoe’s hold on me loosens, and we stand as we break apart from our hug. Suddenly Zoe looks sheepish, her eyes everywhere but on me. The hug was too close. I’ve never met a woman more nervous than her. I reach out and take her hand, and say, “Why don’t we go have some lunch and celebrate.”

  Despite whatever reservations are still eating at her, she flashes me a delighted smile.

  I love her smile.

  We walk out of the courthouse hand in hand.

  What about spiders? (Zoe)

  We hurry out of the court. Even though everything went the way we wanted, the anxiety and stress has been tougher than I expected. Jasmine is swaying on her feet, and it’s time to get her home. I’m grateful again that Matt came along and sat with us in the court. Especially now, because he lifts Jasmine up, and carries her out of the courthouse. She wraps her arms around his shoulders, and looks almost as if she might fall asleep.

  “What do you say we go to lunch, Jasmine?” I try to keep the anxiety out of my voice as I asked the question. I thought I was calm before the hearing, but now I’m feeling incredibly shaky.

  “What are we having?” She peeps up from Matt’s shoulder.

  “I was thinking about Antonio’s.”

  Jasmine grins. The courthouse is in Northampton, not far from Amherst. We get in the car, across the river, and head to go get lunch.

  We get stuck in traffic halfway across the bridge. It won’t take long—traffic in the Pioneer Valley means a five-minute delay, not the hours it might take to drive somewhere in Tokyo. As we’re sitting on the bridge waiting to move, I look up in the rearview mirror. Jasmine is sitting in her booster seat, and tears are streaming down her face.

  “Jasmine?” As I say her name, she begins to sob. Matt wrenches around in his seat, his eyes widening.

  “What’s wrong?” His question comes out at the same time as mine. “Sweetie, what is it?”

  “I—I—I —th—th—th… thought they were going to make me go back to the shelter. I was scared.” Her crying becomes more forceful as she says the words. I feel a twist in my stomach. It never even crossed my mind that she was afraid that might happen.

  How could I be so stupid? Of course she was afraid. Even I was afraid of that. I had lawyers and common sense and
at least some knowledge of the law telling me that they weren’t going to take her away from me. Even so I was afraid. Jasmine had none of that knowledge, she had nothing to reassure her.

  What kind of a guardian am I going to be? When I can’t even think of the most obvious problem?

  Matt, twisted around in his seat, reaches back and takes her hand. “Kiddo, we would never let them take you away,” he says. “Not even if dinosaurs were chasing us down and chomping on our feet.”

  It seems this is just the right thing to say, because she smirks. Then she asks, “what about spiders?”

  “Not even spiders.”

  Now she has one eye closed, and a furrow appearing between her eyebrows. “What about… rats?”

  “Rats don’t bother me.” He looks serene as he says the words.

  “Snakes?”

  “I eat snakes for dinner.”

  She giggles. “Beatles?”

  Matt twists his mouth, and pauses, then gets a sly grin on his face. He shrugs. “Beatles, you’re on your own.”

  Jasmine laughs.

  In a more serious voice, but still warm, he asks, “You didn’t like that shelter, did you?”

  “I hated it. It’s stupid.”

  Matt nods soberly. “I think so too. They should have let you sleep in the barn.”

  Traffic is moving now, so I have to look at the road. I can almost hear her eyes roll. She says, “That would have been fine. I could have slept with Mono.”

  He smiles and says, “You are a smart girl, Jasmine.”

  Chapter Thirteen

  Come with Me. (Matt)

  By the time I was in high school I’d filled out—I was no longer the scrawny runt who had jumped 500 times into the net as punishment for my father. The summer before my junior year, after a year of intense upper body training supervised by Papa, I’d begun catching. Well, in practice—I wouldn’t start catching in the show until my senior year.

  I should explain some things about being a catcher. It’s not like being a catcher in baseball, where if you fail to catch the ball then you grab it and toss it back to the pitcher. If the catcher in a trapeze act misses, there’s a good chance somebody’s going to get hurt or killed.

 
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